Legal education in schools – more relevant than ever?

It’s a few weeks now since schools returned from the summer break, when fresh interest in the law was sparked by the UK riots and the legal consequences that followed.

I am particularly interested in how schools tackle the issues we witnessed on the television, as we have been providing educational projects and publications for young people for over two decades. I believe this recent showing demonstrates the need for young people to understand not only their legal rights and responsibilities, but also the context and reasoning behind such rules.

During the last academic year we celebrated our 20th anniversary of running the Bar National Mock Trial Competition, culminating in a fantastic national final at the Royal Courts of Justice in Belfast in March 2011. The November and December regional heats (and those that were moved to January because of the snow!) saw 3,000 students from all over the UK meeting Kris Simpson and examining the prosecution’s case against them for the theft of a Vauxhall Astra.

Our Magistrates’ Court Mock Trial Competition enjoyed its seventeenth year with a record number of applications: 6000 young people from over 425 schools were supported by around 800 magistrate volunteers this year. Case one this year saw the students defending Kelly Daniels in a case of alleged domestic violence against her sibling.

In total, nearly 10,000 young people were involved in this year’s mock trial competitions, engaging with the legal system and legal personnel in a positive, interactive and memorable way. Writing this shortly after the summer’s riots, it’s all too easy for the media and the public to forget the huge number of young people passionate about the society they live in and eager to learn, debate and experience the role that the law and legal system plays in everyday life. The unprecedented demand from students and teachers for this year’s competitions and the recent focus on young people and the law in the news show the competitions are as important and relevant today as they have ever been.

(Entry to this year’s Magistrates’ Court Mock Trial Competition closes on 21 October.)

May 2011 saw our Lawyers in Schools celebration event, recognising the achievements of the many students and volunteer lawyers that have been involved in this year’s scheme. Volunteers from 25 law firms and legal teams ran 196 interactive sessions in schools across the country on subjects ranging from consumer law, human rights, the youth justice system, downloading music and the powers of the police. This year’s evaluation report highlighted the project’s success in developing students’ knowledge and understanding of the law (including a 30% increase in students’ confidence in dealing with their own legal problems in the future) while building on their speaking and employability skills.

The event saw all of the guests, adults and young people alike, piloting a new resource written in response to the spring protests in the UK and abroad. The activities had students looking at the role of the police in maintaining order and the legal issues that can arise when a peaceful protest becomes antisocial or criminal damage is involved. The parallels between the activity and what subsequently happened in August are clear. The level of debate the activity generated highlighted how interesting and engaging legal discussions can be, and how passionately and articulately young people can express their views on the law.

The law is all around us everyday and regardless of age and background everyone has an opinion on the law, the criminal justice system and what they consider to be ‘fair’. Adults are talking about the law and so are young people and it’s important to create opportunities to inform people about such issues and allow them to be assessed critically.

It’s an interesting time for the legal profession and an interesting time to work in legal education and we look forward to launching next year’s projects to continue offering means for people to learn, debate and experience the legal system and interact with the professionals that work in that field.

Views expressed on this blog are not necessarily those of the Citizenship Foundation.

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